GUEST COMMENTARY: Changing the Johnson Amendment would hurt all houses of worship

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As the pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, I’m part of a church with almost two centuries of prophetic witness – following God and doing what we think is right, not seeking popularity contests or waiting for the government to tell us that everyone created in the image of God is equal.

In 1823, we had African Americans who were full members of the church, and a female chair of trustees in 1912. When we needed a new sanctuary in 1950, a woman was given the leadership reins for the capital campaign.

These decisions did not win my predecessors any friends among their contemporary political leaders. We are proud to be one of those churches that speaks truth to power and pursues the things of God.

I’m thankful for a First Amendment that – both then and now – has kept the government from interfering in our church’s business, thus allowing us to speak loudly and prophetically on issues. I’m also thankful for the ways our government allows religion to flourish, including in the federal tax code.

Churches and all houses of worship are eligible for 501©(3) tax status, the same status as charitable nonprofits like food banks, Habitat for Humanity and domestic violence shelters.

The tax law that applies to all 501©(3) organizations includes a provision called the “Johnson Amendment.” The so-called Johnson Amendment strikes a balance that helps all charitable nonprofits retain an independent voice.

Houses of worship and other nonprofits that enjoy this most favored tax-exempt status can freely address any moral and political issue, but keeping that 501©(3) designation means we cannot tell people who to vote for or vote against. This balance is fair and right.

The Johnson Amendment doesn’t stop me from speaking freely and prophetically in the pulpit about any issue of the day, nor does it stop me from making endorsements in my personal capacity. It doesn’t stop my congregation from lobbying local, state or national politicians when we agree with or oppose their policy positions.

Changing the law would harm all our houses of worship, bringing the partisanship that is bedeviling our country into the pews. Our church is above alignment with a singular political ideal.

Politicians realize that repealing this protection for the charitable sector could be a windfall for their campaigns. People running for office – national, state and local – know that they could pressure houses of worship for an endorsement if the Johnson Amendment were removed, asking churches to use our resources and reputations to support their candidacy. Worse, they could use us to funnel campaign donations from donors who would like to remain in the shadows.

The overwhelming majority of the religious and nonprofit community supports the Johnson Amendment so we can remain focused on our mission, not mired in partisan mudslinging. More than 100 religious denominations and religiously affiliated organizations, more than 4,500 pastors and lay leaders and more than 5,800 charitable nonprofits and foundations have all signed petitions supporting the current law.

Invite all pastors and lay leaders throughout Missouri to add your name alongside mine and more than 100 fellow Missouri faith leaders to the letter at https://www.faith-voices.org/the-letter/.

I think about my parishioners, with their diverse backgrounds and political leanings. They don’t always vote the same way. The primaries in our state have already been divisive this year, and we have one of the most hotly contested Senate races in the country. My congregation needs a place where we can gather as followers of Christ, not be bombarded with the same candidate commercials that have infiltrated our entertainment, news, social media and almost every other aspect of life.

Partisan campaigning in the pews would create a division that ultimately undermines our shared cause of Christ. Our church business meetings should be about the business of the Gospel, not bickering over political candidates.

I am constantly challenging the faithful to embrace the radical hospitality of the Gospel. I unashamedly preach about the political nature of Jesus and how we imitate his example today. I urge my congregation to be active participants in the political process. I don’t tell them who to vote for. The cause of Christ can’t be compromised for political power, expediency or notoriety.

The Rev. Carol McEntyre serves as the senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia.

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